Distinctive Features

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Distinctive Features


the properties of linguistic units that distinguish these units from other units of the same level, which either do not possess the given properties or possess the opposite properties. For example, the Russian sound l’ differs from the sound / with respect to palatalization (the presence versus the absence of a property); the word form stol (table) differs from the word form stoly (tables) with respect to number (singular versus plural); and the meaning of the word chelovek (man) differs from that of the word kamen’ (rock) with respect to animateness (animate versus inanimate).

The concept of distinctive features has been most extensively developed in phonology, where it is a basic concept. Relevant and irrelevant features are distinguished: a given distinctive feature is relevant for a given phonological system if the phonemes of the given language may be contrasted with respect to this distinctive feature (thus, the feature voiced versus voiceless consonants is relevant for Russian, German, French, English, and several other languages). However, even a relevant distinctive feature may prove to be irrelevant under certain conditions, for instance, if it is conditioned by the position of the sound (the voicelessness of consonants at the end of a word is not relevant in Russian) or by characteristics of the phonological system.

The American scholars R. Jakobson, C. G. M. Fant, and M. Halle proposed a list of 12 universal binary acoustic distinctive features sufficient, in their opinion, for an exhaustive description of the phonological system of any language. The concept of distinctive features is used on other levels of linguistic structure as well and is one of the fundamental concepts of contemporary linguistics.


Trubetskoi, N. S. Osnovy fonologii. Moscow, 1960. (Translated from German.)
Bloomfield, L. lazyk. Moscow, 1968. (Translated from English.)
Jakobson, R., C. G. M. Fant, and M. Halle. Preliminaries to Speech Analysis. Cambridge, 1955. (Russian translation of part 2 in Novoe v lingvistike, issue 2. Moscow, 1962.)
Jakobson, R., and M. Halle. Fundamentals of Language. The Hague, 1956.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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